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The Best Way to Win an Argument with Your Partner

No one ever wins an argument just by being right. The best way to win is to make sure your partner feels like they’re winning, too. Here's how to make it happen.

By
Stephen Snyder, MD,
Episode #11
win an argument

No one in a relationship ever won an argument just by being right. 

I mean, there's nothing the matter with being right. Maybe, once in a while, you might even get the other person to admit it.  

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But I want to propose something paradoxical: In the long run, the best way to win an argument is to make sure your partner feels like they're winning too. 

How not to win an argument

Most couples don't really listen to each other when they get into an argument. Instead, they react to each other emotionally. Getting emotional tends to dial up the drama and cause chaos. 

Most often, of course, when you're in the middle of an argument, you just want to win.  

No one in a relationship ever won an argument just by being right.

There are all sorts of sneaky tactics people use when they try to win. Have you ever insisted that, if your partner really loved you, they'd give you what you want? Or maybe you've suggested that if only your partner were less anxious, less obsessive-compulsive, or less burdened by unresolved issues with their father, they'd surely see things your way.

In the long run, these tactics can do a fair amount of damage to your relationship.

Today I want to show you a better way. But first, let's look at what conventionally happens when couples argue. 

Here's how most arguments tend to go

Let's say Jesse and Pat have been married for a few years. One night they go to a party. Jesse notices Pat drinking more than usual—and getting louder than usual—and gets upset. 

Pat notices Jesse getting upset and gets angry. The next morning, they're arguing about whether or not Pat drank too much.  

Arguments like this usually accomplish nothing, of course. The next time Jesse and Pat go to a party, the same thing is likely to happen again.

Argue better with mindful communication

Today I want to show you a better way to argue. The technique goes by many names. In mindfulness work, it's called "mindful communication."  

There are three essential steps:

  1. Each person gets to speak uninterrupted for a set time—say, two minutes. The other person just listens.

  2. The listener states their understanding of what their partner just said.

  3. Then the person who spoke either confirms that the listener heard them correctly or restates their complaint until the listener demonstrates that they understand.

Then you switch roles. 

The crucial difference between this technique and conventional arguing is that no one is trying to convince their partner they're right. Instead, it's understood that your feelings and desires are often going to conflict fundamentally. 

Once you accept that you each have different needs, you're halfway to solving the problem.

Once you accept that you each have different needs, you're halfway to solving the problem. Your focus can shift toward looking for the best practical solution. 

Mindful communication in action

Let me show you how this works. Let's say the next time Jesse and Pat go to a party, Pat drinks too much again, and Jesse again gets exasperated.

The next morning, Pat gets ready for another round of the same argument. But let's say this time Jesse decides to try the mindful communication technique we just discussed.

"Look," Jesse says. "Let's see if we can make this more productive. Let's just each talk about what we experienced last night. Pure and simple. No drama. You tell me your side, and I promise I'll listen to what you have to say."

"Then what?" asks Pat.

"Then we'll switch. You go first." 

"Okay," says Pat, thinking this will be easy. "Last night I'm at the party, relaxing and drinking with my friends. And then I look over and see you with that sour face on, and I think, 'Why can't Jesse ever just let me have fun?' That basically ruins the whole night for me."

"Got it," says Jesse. "Now let me make sure I heard you." 

Jesse repeats back what Pat said, but in Jesse's own words.

"Yeah, that's pretty much it," says Pat.

"Good," says Jesse. "Now can I tell you what I experienced last night?"

"Do I have a choice?" says Pat.

How mindful communication works to enhance empathy

"I felt embarrassed," says Jesse. "And a little lonely. Once you start drinking, I know I'm going to be pretty much on my own for the rest of the night. 

"Now tell me what you heard me say."

But Pat had been busy thinking of ways to argue the point instead of listening to what Jesse said. Being a bit hungover from the night before didn't help matters, either.

"Say it again," prompts Pat. 

Jesse repeats it—about how Pat's drinking makes Jesse feel embarrassed and lonely.

"Do you really feel that lonely when I'm drinking?" Pat asks. "I didn't know that. All I could see was how angry you were. I didn't know you were lonely."

"I'm glad you know now," Jesse says.  

One reason this technique works is that it provides something called "mirroring." When Pat reflects back what Jesse says, it's like Pat's holding up a mirror in which Jesse can see her reflection.

Mirroring is something good parents do with their children. [As adults], we still need lots of mirroring.

Mirroring is something good parents do with their children. They pay close attention to what the child seems to be experiencing, and they reflect it back to the child in ways that validate what the child is feeling. This helps build empathy.

With adults, the technique works pretty much the same. We still need lots of mirroring. 

Now, let's get back to Jesse and Pat. 

The pay-off from mindful communication is that everyone wins

The next time Jesse and Pat are at a party, Pat has a couple of drinks, then glances over at Jesse, who looks upset. 

Pat walks over to where Jesse is sitting. "I just wanted to make sure you didn't feel lonely." 

"Thanks for remembering," Jesse says. 

Pat asks whether Jesse wants to come hang out at the bar.

"No, I'm good," Jesse says. 

In the long run, what most of us want in relationships is more love and respect.

Pat smiles. It's good to feel connected again. 

"Hey, Jesse," Pat asks, on the way home. "That thing we did last week, instead of arguing, where we just listened to each other—what's that called?"

Jesse thinks for a moment. "I don't remember. But I like that we both got to win." 

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Disclaimer

All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. 

About the Author

Stephen Snyder, MD

Dr. Stephen Snyder is a sex and relationship therapist in New York City and Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the Icahn School of Medicine. He's also the author of Love Worth Making: How to Have Ridiculously Great Sex in a Long-Lasting Relationship

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